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During what seemed like hours that we sat in crowded medical waiting rooms, my mother and I made small talk that quickly petered out. I flipped through old magazines when I couldn’t concentrate on reading my book. I scrolled through my phone absentmindedly. I was irritated and restless. I was also bored.
I was often bored during my caregiving years. Because we spent so many hours in each other’s company, my mother and I usually ran out of things to say to each other, except for what was immediately necessary. (“Don’t forget to use your walker” or “What do you want for lunch?”) She liked to watch the same game show on TV every evening — which drove me stir-crazy. I sometimes pulled out old photo albums of her world travels to prompt her to reminisce about happier times. But even this activity became repetitive and dull.
Boredom is a common, unpleasant human experience when we are understimulated by our immediate situations. Even as we remain physically present, we are mentally distracted and disengaged. We then assume a universal bored look — a vacant gaze and slack jaw with a slightly downturned mouth. Our performance and morale suffer.
The fact that family caregivers are more prone to boredom than most people is not due to a lack of interest in the well-being of the people we’re caring for. To the contrary, we put up with long stretches of boredom because we want to make a positive difference. But many of the activities that caregiving requires are less than enthralling. Filling out health care insurance forms is an exercise in tedium. Sitting on the phone after a medical office receptionist has put us on hold is maddening monotony. Doing the same care routine every day — washing, dressing, feeding, doling out pills — can be stultifying drudgery.
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The irony here is that no caregiver wants caregiving to be too exciting, because “exciting” events — accidents, falls and medical emergencies — are harrowing. But a little spice of life or a bit of fun would relieve the boredom and help us remain engaged so that we could put forth our best effort. How do we manage this? Here are some ideas.
Break it up. We develop routines to help keep us organized, but our days can then easily become “routinized” — unchanging, uneventful and, yes, plain boring. Breaking up a too-rigid schedule adds variety and has other advantages. Like business executives who use lean process management, we can regularly reflect on what we do and how we do it in order to introduce potential improvements. If our loved one balks about getting out of bed every morning at 8 o'clock, then we can push breakfast back to 9 or 10. If going to the supermarket becomes an exhausting half-day excursion, then consider having your groceries delivered.
Shake it up. All of us need things out of the humdrum to look forward to, but not all caregivers have the time or luxury for weekend jaunts or even dinners out. If that’s the case, then we should devise our own special events — such as holiday-themed meals, action-movie nights at home, birthday parties, tea parties, even silly costume parties. That takes creativity, a concerted effort and perhaps a spirit of playfulness — exactly the opposite of going through the motions and feeling bored.
Change your mind. The best way of countering boredom may not lie in changing our caregiving routines, but in transforming our reactions to them. We can use our imagination to look at our environment in new ways. For instance, rather than being the bored son who chafes at sitting in the waiting room, I could have made believe I was an anthropologist closely observing American family members caring for one another. Or perhaps a health policy expert doing a site visit at a primary care office. In either case, I would have paid more — not less — attention to my surroundings and possibly would have discovered other items of interest.
Along the same lines, using mindfulness practices can also shift our reactions to ones of greater engagement. An easy-to-learn practice is called the “five senses exercise,” in which we deliberately focus, one at a time, on what we hear, see, feel/touch, taste and smell in a given instance. Doing this brings us more fully into the moment wherever we are. We notice the whir of life around us. We are better connected to our own bodies and sensations. We perceive and cherish our loved ones to a greater degree. Suddenly, we are no longer bored.
Barry J. Jacobs, a clinical psychologist and family therapist, is a member of the AARP Caregiving Advisory Panel and coauthor of the book AARP Meditations for Caregivers (Da Capo, 2016). Follow him on Twitter @drbarryjjacobs and on Facebook.